We all have a problem with drink, not just Charles Kennedy

There is a case for closing down the bars at Westminster

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The Independent Online

In the aftermath of the death of Charles Kennedy, his countryman Alex Salmond, a man of eloquence and worldly wisdom, said: “The House of Commons probably is the worst place in the world for somebody with an alcohol problem.” Much has been said of the drinking culture at the Palace of Westminster, an enclosed, rarefied institution whose denizens spend long hours on their own, away from home, and where the company is good and the booze is cheap. For a man with a weakness in that area, like poor Charles, this certainly wasn’t the best environment for him to spend most of his adult life.

The tragedy of Charles Kennedy is, of course, much more complicated and multi-layered than that, and it serves no one to believe that, in effect, he simply gave in to temptation, and fell in with a bad crowd. Nevertheless, there is probably a case for closing down the bars at Westminster: after all, there are very few workplaces in Britain where the employees have access to alcohol during working hours. And, if not, much greater efforts should be made to provide support for those with a problem: it is depressing to hear so many people say that it was well known within political circles that Charles was struggling.

It is estimated that there are more than 1.5m problem drinkers in Britain, and yet only 100,000 of them are in treatment. The government spends vastly more on drug rehabilitation than on alcohol treatment. This reveals much about our attitude to drink. Alcoholism is a disease, a deadly one, and yet we don’t, as a society, truly, deeply regard it as such. In certain sectors – politics is one, and journalism is another – the cultural norm is that people drink regularly and heavily, and those who do it to a greater extent are invariably regarded as “characters”. We are not very good at spotting problem drinkers, because in a land awash with booze, you often can’t see the ones who are sinking below the surface.

We are a rich nation. We work hard. We are prey to the stresses of modern life. And drink, freely available at all hours of the day and night, has become the preferred mode of relaxation, or means of escape. This is true across the gender and demographic spectrum, and every day there is another news story about how alcohol is affecting a different section of the population. Last week, a report said that middle-aged men were drinking more than teenagers. Today, it is women drinking at home. In the past year, there has been a threefold increase in women being admitted to hospital as a result of drink.

Niall Campbell, a specialist at the Priory, an addiction clinic, said yesterday that Britain had “a chronic drink problem” and that he was alarmed by the increase in female patients and the resultant health problems that came with that increase. 

Alastair Campbell wrote movingly in these pages yesterday about how he and his friend Charles Kennedy shared a friendship built on having a common enemy – drink. Campbell defeated his foe, and, sadly, Kennedy didn’t. Campbell believes has urged David Cameron to bring in minimum pricing for drink.

But it’s a massive cultural shift we need, and Charles Kennedy’s death will be less pointless if, on some level, it makes us all – each and every one of us –re-evaluate our relationship with drink.

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